7 May 2024

Parliament asks for budget for its watchdogs

From The House , 7:30 pm on 7 May 2024

The Government’s budget is decided by cabinet, after many months of work from the Minister of Finance, Treasury and individual ministries and agencies. 

But they don’t get to make all the decisions. Before the budget gets presented Parliament gets the chance to add a few items itself, by-passing the Government (kind-of) to fund its own watch-dogs.  

Ultimately, it is Parliament that has the power to approve or reject the entire budget, but that decision is over something designed and proposed by government.  This bit is different.

Chief Ombudsman Judge Peter Boshier (center), Deputy Ombudsman Compliance  and Practice Emma Leach (left) and Chief Inspector OPCAT Jacki Jones, (right) speak to the Law and Order Committee about the illegal restraint of at risk prisoners.

Chief Ombudsman Judge Peter Boshier (center), Deputy Ombudsman Compliance and Practice Emma Leach (left) and Chief Inspector OPCAT Jacki Jones, (right) speak to the Law and Order Committee about the illegal restraint of at risk prisoners. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

These extra Appropriations are voted on by Parliament and presented separately. In fact they are made in the form of an Address to the Governor General, with details of funding for the Officers, to be added to the budget. 

(Fun fact, that address is a physical thing, not an email. It is printed on ‘Goat Skin’, which these days is just a high quality parchment rather than the former skin of a goat.) 

On Monday, the Leader of the House (who is the Government’s senior representative in the debating chamber), moved that the House recommend two things to the Governor General. 

Both to do with three Parliamentary watch-dogs who keep an eye on government: The three Officers of Parliament are the Ombudsman, the Auditor-General, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. They all report to Parliament as a whole (through Parliament’s Speaker and the Officers of Parliament Committee) rather than to a particular minister or cabinet like other government entities.

The first was updates to last year’s Estimates for those watch dogs; i.e. their actual spend rather than their estimated spend. The second was their estimated spend for the coming year.

This is all separate from the Government’s own budget development process because these entities are designed to apply independent scrutiny to the Government's actions including use of public funds, legal accountability and environmental stewardship.

Government’s might feasibly find them to be a thorn in their side and desired to defund them. Or at the least the Officers could hold their punches in case that happened.

The level of funding is determined (with input from Treasury) by by the Officers of Parliament Committee, a cross-party committee of MPs. That committee is chaired by the Speaker who is the nominal ‘minister in charge’ of the Officers. So today’s motion doesn’t come as a complete surprise to MPs.

The Three Officers of Parliament  

Who are these three entities known as Officers of Parliament?

The Ombudsman addresses complaints about the administrative conduct of government or public sector agencies, including official information requests. It can undertake investigations and inspections, and also undertakes a range of roles to contribute to protecting basic rights of citizens (often including those in prisons and retirement homes).

The Auditor-General carries out annual audits, performance audits, other auditing and assurance services, as well as inquiries, regarding the performance of around 3,400 public organisations, including government departments, state-owned enterprises, crown research institutes, the defence forces, district health boards, ports and schools, plus many more.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has broad powers to investigate environmental concerns. Its work involves forming independent reports and advice on environmental issues under the aim of maintaining or improving the quality of this country’s natural environment.

Parliament’s less financially independent bodies 

Oddly, while the funding for Parliament’s watch dogs is independent of Government, the funding for Parliament itself is not. 

It has long been recommended that the organisations that ‘run’ Parliament (The Parliamentary Service, and The Office of the Clerk), also be funded independently of governments. 

This was discussed by The Speaker (who is the nominal Minister for these bodies), and the Clerk of the House when they appeared before the Governance and Administration Select Committee in March. 

At that time we reported:

The Committee chair, Labour’s Rachel Boyack, asked whether it was time to think about using a different methodology for how the two agencies were funded. She said it was incumbent on all MPs and parties to protect the independence of the bodies that run Parliament from the Executive, and especially the parts designed to provide scrutiny on the Executive.

“I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about the tension between the institutions of the democracy and its protection, delivery and outreach to the wider community; and the fact that it is constrained, potentially, by decisions made by the Executive, albeit that it's Parliament that passes all budgetary matters,” Brownlee responded.

“That's always the fall-back position - [to say] well that’s what parliament agreed - but we know how those things tend to work.”

Brownlee noted that a proposal for Parliament rather than Cabinet to recommend appropriations for the Office of the Clerk and the Parliamentary Service, has been gathering dust for several years. Wilson elaborated on this draft bill.

“It’s an idea that has been floated around for five or more years. The Parliament Bill would effectively have the same funding mechanism for the two Parliamentary agencies that it does for the Officers of Parliament, which reflects their independence from the Executive and the need for them to support Parliament and its functions, where effectively a Parliamentary committee makes a recommendation about their budgets, with advice from Treasury, and it feeds into the cabinet budget-setting process and by convention they respect the recommendation.”

It’s up to cabinet whether to take up this proposal, which has been sitting there, ready to go since the last Parliament, however it hasn’t yet been deemed enough of priority for the draft to be advanced.

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